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Was Edward Abbey Racist and Sexist?

7/30/2009 11:22:09 AM

Tags: Environment, environmental movement, Edward Abbey, racism, sexism, patriarchy, feminism, Earth First

Dead Horse PointEdward Abbey is a hero to many modern-day environmentalists: He’s a font of aphoristic wisdom, a forebear to lots of front-line activists, and a spiritual mentor to lovers of the desert West. But was he also a sexist and a racist? In the July-August issue of the radical environmental journal Earth First, a writer dubbed S@sh@ (EF writers often use pseudonyms) answers soundly in the affirmative:

One quick look at Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang exposes the racism and sexism that poisoned the movement throughout the 1980s. Its transparently patriarchal depictions of gender stereotypes show up throughout the book and are even more pervasive in Abbey’s disturbing diary, Confessions of a Barbarian.

Even if you aren’t as incensed as S@sh@ is by Abbey’s use of gender pronouns, and even if you don’t buy her outrageous claim that Abbey’s patriarchy basically killed him, it’s harder to argue with her case on his racism. She quotes piecemeal from an Abbey passage in Confessions, but in the interest of letting ol’ Ed speak for himself, here’s the whole eyebrow-raising section, which it must be noted was written in 1963, in the midst of the civil rights movement:

According to the morning newspaper, the population of America will reach 267 million by 2000 AD. An increase of forty million, or about one-sixth, in only seventeen years! And the racial composition of the population will also change considerably: the white birth rate is about sixty per thousand females, the Negro rate eighty-three per thousand, and the Hispanic rate ninety-six per thousand.

Am I a racist? I guess I am. I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals. Look at Africa, at Mexico, at Asia.

Garrett Hardin [the author of Tragedy of the Commons] compares our situation to an overcrowded lifeboat in a sea of drowning bodies. If we take more aboard, the boat will be swamped and we’ll all go under. Militarize our borders. The lifeboat is listing.

Well, there’s not much ambiguity here. Abbey’s views would fit right in among today’s vigilante border militias, white-power groups, and right-wing talk-radio haters.

Close readers of Abbey know that he had plenty of rough edges, most of which he took no pains to hide. But his flagrant racism is indeed a major strike against sainting the man as some sort of green prophet.

S@sh@ knows she’s messing with an icon and even grudgingly gives Abbey his due. But she also ultimately takes to heart his advice to “resist much, obey little”:

These quotations are difficult to inscribe within this journal—like the Earth First! Journal itself, Abbey’s writing has done much to inspire the environmental movement to direct action. We should recognize his contributions. To be sure, he was not alone in his oppressive beliefs; it was a different time, and they pervaded and hampered the whole EF! movement. … [But] Remember, the revolutionary presence that drove Abbey and his minions away created space for the philosophical introductions of eco-feminism, deep ecology, and bio-centrism. We should never return to the petulant and puerile egoism of certain old traditions.

Source: Earth First (article not available online)

Image by msn678, licensed under Creative Commons.



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Tasmanian National-Anarchists
8/13/2009 6:40:55 AM
We have written a response to this article on our blog: tasna.wordpress.com/2009/08/13/earthfirst-infiltrated-by-pc-wankers/

Tasmanian National-Anarchists
8/13/2009 6:39:58 AM
We have written a response to this article on our blog: tasna.wordpress.com/2009/08/13/earthfirst-infiltrated-by-pc-wankers/

Doc_1
8/6/2009 1:38:10 PM
While over at EF, they were just spiking trees and injuring common loggers that were just trying to feed their families, albeit in a Neanderthalic way. EF'ers are just as guilty of violence as Abbey was of sexism and racism. Spot the difference. I'll give my contributions to Defenders Of Wildlife, NRDC and Sea Shepherd, thank you. Ed Abbey did much, much more good than harm. If he was a bit rough around the edges, who cares? If that offends the thin skinned PC crowd, too bad. -Doc

Pooka
8/6/2009 12:22:58 PM
S@sh@ is creating a straw man to burn down. Many of Abbey's views, when looked at from our contemporary perspective, could arguably be considered racist. In my readings, he's never claimed to be unprejudiced (actually, he's a brutally honest person, often very harsh against himself). And would it be fair to hold him to today's standards, since he really came to age before the start of the politically correct revolution? But most importantly, the real failing is that people have brought him to this "saint" level, something I think he would have rejected. Personally I enjoy his literature (check out check "a fools progress") and I agree with many of his messages. But he is still just a man with many failings. There is no reason to build him up or tear him down to more then just a man. Let's spend our time moving forward with environmentalism, instead of fighting over trifles.

Pooka
8/6/2009 12:22:36 PM
S@sh@ is creating a straw man to burn down. Many of Abbey's views, when looked at from our contemporary perspective, could arguably be considered racist. In my readings, he's never claimed to be unprejudiced (actually, he's a brutally honest person, often very harsh against himself). And would it be fair to hold him to today's standards, since he really came to age before the start of the politically correct revolution? But most importantly, the real failing is that people have brought him to this "saint" level, something I think he would have rejected. Personally I enjoy his literature (check out check "a fools progress") and I agree with many of his messages. But he is still just a man with many failings. There is no reason to build him up or tear him down to more then just a man. Let's spend our time moving forward with environmentalism, instead of fighting over trifles.

Keith Goetzman
8/4/2009 11:19:51 AM
Rhonda and Unwilted, It appears to me that Abbey himself was more honest in answering the question of his racism. I'm amazed at your ability to rationalize his views as anything but racist. And Unwilted, your "limp-noodle fairies" crack is proof that homophobia is also alive and well in the environmental movement. Keith Goetzman

Rhonda
8/3/2009 12:55:04 PM
What I take from the direct passage is that Abbey did not want to live in an overpopulated world....as he says look at Africa, Mexico....over populated, underfed, disease, corrupt government...what's wrong with saying that is not what you want for your country? Sorry, but from what this article provided I don't see direct racism. How do we know that if Abbey incountered an individual who shared his passion for environmentalism, who happended to be black, hispanic or asian that Abbey would turn his back to this person or treat them badly or with distain. Sorry S@sh@ but you'll have to go stir the pot elsewhere.

Unwilted
7/31/2009 2:46:26 PM
Abbey recognized what most environmentalists still ignore -- overpopulation is the source of most of our environmental problems. Large portions of the world are already overpopulated. The Southwest in the 1960s was not, and he wanted to save it. He did not want it to become like Mexico City -- or New York City. Abbey probably would be on the border with the crazy militias. He would fit in with them about as well as he would fit in with the limp-noodle fairies that make up EF! these days.

christopher mitchell
7/31/2009 11:58:21 AM
Ummm, yeah, pretty indisputable that he was a racist. Would he be a racist if he were alive today? I think not. I suspect he would have realized that the things he crusaded against transcended any racial designation, but maybe not. Millions of people are still hung up on race - turn on right wing radio.



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